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Winter Olympics: How NBCUniversal’s Army Of Techs Conquered Sochi

For viewers, the Winter Olympics are just 18 days of sports and entertainment.

But for NBCUniversal, they’re part of vast exercise in planning and logistics that stretches back to the end of the 2012 summer games in London — and won’t end for weeks after the Sochi games are over.

“It’s a massive effort,” says David Mazza, senior VP and chief technical officer, NBC Sports Group and NBC Olympics, of the enormous load-in and ramp-up to the start of the games.

After the London games ended on Aug. 12, 2012, the NBC Sports team broke down their gear, gave their team a bit of recovery time, then dove into planning for Sochi, a far more difficult venue for an American television broadcast.

With a relatively short gap between the end of the Summer Games and the start of the next Winter Games, the first advance teams hit the ground in Russia just months after London wrapped. “We had people here for almost a year who were doing the advance planning, making deals with the hotels and the car companies,” says Mazza.

Such a live television event from Russia is unprecedented for American TV, and with NBCU committed to streaming or televising every event, that meant setting up 55 digital feeds from Sochi to the U.S.  “We have learned over the years if we’re doing something risky, we’ve got a backup and an alternate and usually a backup to that and an alternate,” says Mazza.

“We spend the better part of those 16 months (between summer and winter games) testing and making sure we have diverse paths of redundancy, and the resiliency that if we have a fire in one area we can reroute another area,” he adds.

NBCU engineers arrived in mid-October to begin building out NBC’s facilities at the International Broadcasting Center, then were joined a week later by Sony engineers who installed mobile infrastructure NBC had custom-built in 1999 for the Sydney games. By mid-December, the NBC team numbered some 200. Everybody went home for Christmas, but on Jan. 2, the Peacock invasion began in earnest, with another charter plane every Monday bringing in another 280 to 300 personnel.

All in all, the NBCU team in Sochi will be around 2,800 people, 1,500 in production and another 1,300 support staff. Many of those, especially runners, drivers and support staff, are Russian.

Broadcasting gear, including mobile trucks, arrived by both sea and air. The sheer quantity of stuff is enormous: 100 40-foot shipping containers, plus “an enormous amount of air frieght,” says Mazza. “Going through customs in the  various places is a challenge,” he adds.

The games use some 53 mobile trucks, which had to come in by sea from Italy, and didn’t arrive in Russia until Jan. 26, then had to convoy through the vehicle checkpoints to get into place.

Once the games are under way, the NBCU team will have to be unusually self-sufficient.  “In other parts of the world, if you have something break, you can ship it through FedEx or UPS, and you’d have it two or three days, four days later maybe if it’s international,” says Mazza. “That’s a challenge here in Sochi. FedEx doesn’t deliver.”

After the closing ceremonies on Feb. 23, all those people and that gear have to get out, which is a massive project in its own right.

The mobile trucks will be gone within three days, back to the seaport from which they came. Much of the IBC will be broken down by March 5,  but the Paralympics begin on March 7, with a much smaller setup in the IBC. Then, once the Paralympics end, it’ll be another 45 days or so to prepare everything for shipping. “You usually go out the same way you came in, and they document every piece of gear, every serial number and bar code to get through customs on the way back into the U.S.,” says Mazza.

“I would say this has been one of our more demanding games we’ve done logistically in the past 10 to 15 years,” he adds. But with the Rio Summer Olympics not due to start until Aug. 5, 2016, there will be a bit more time to decompress before cycle begins again.

OLYMPIC TECH BY THE NUMBERS

2 International Broadcast Centers (Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia and NBC Sports Group IBC in Stamford, Conn., United States)

3 Apps available for fans following the games (NBC Sports Live Extra, NBC Olympics Highlights and Results, and NBC Sports Talk )

5.1 NBC will once again be producing the Olympics in 5.1 surround sound

6 NBCUniversal platforms presenting live coverage (NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network and NBCOlympics.com)

10 Daily curling coverage will begin Feb. 10 on CNBC

14 HD feeds from the U.S. back to Russia. (55 HD feeds from Sochi to the U.S.)

18 Days of coverage

25 Technology Vendor Partnerships

30+ Miles of hybrid cable

45 Edit suites located in the NBC Olympics compound in the Sochi IBC.

55 HD feeds from Sochi to the U.S.

100 Percent of content on hard drives. (Server in Stamford will service all video and media needs for IBC and each venue.)

192 Miles of fiber optic cable

230 Hours of Sochi Olympics coverage on NBCSN, the home for Team USA

400+ Employees working in NBC Sports Group’s IBC in Stamford, Conn.

450+ Cameras used for the Olympic Broadcasting Service host feed

539 Hours of television coverage. The most ever for a Winter Olympics (2010 Vancouver Games – 436 hours)

700 Total cameras used for NBC Olympics coverage. (OBS cameras, plus NBC venue cameras and studio cameras)

1000 Hours of original content streamed on NBCOlympics.com

2000+ Employees on site in Sochi (Full time staff and freelance)

1539 Hours of coverage across NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network and NBCOlympics.com

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